Maple Leafs Should Target Panthers’ Bennett to Bolster Middle Six
There’s been more than enough trade speculation in recent weeks, not just with the Toronto Maple Leafs, but with every team. And, with the news of the Vancouver Canucks trading Bo Horvat to the New York Islanders on Monday, it would appear the first domino has fallen.
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Now, it makes sense that the Canucks swung this trade when they did, given how far out of the playoff race they are. But, lots of teams are still trying to figure out what direction they’re headed in, and likely won’t start making moves until they have a better idea of that, closer to the trade deadline. One of those teams is the Florida Panthers, who currently sit fifth place in the Atlantic Division and three points out of a playoff spot after winning the Presidents’ Trophy in 2021-22 and swinging the biggest trade of the off-season.
The Panthers are going to have some extra work to do if they want to make the playoffs. With a record of 24-22-6, they’re not meeting expectations this season, and if they don’t turn things around soon, they might be better served moving on from certain pieces and gaining assets rather than spending them only to miss the playoffs. If they decide to go in the direction of selling, the Maple Leafs should target former fourth-overall pick Sam Bennett.
Bennett Became a New Player in Florida
When Bennett was drafted in 2014, he was widely regarded as a potential top-three pick behind Aaron Ekblad and Sam Reinhart. He wound up slipping to fourth overall when the Edmonton Oilers opted to go with Leon Draisitl instead (evidently proving to be a good decision, as the Calgary Flames selected him fourth overall). With 91 points in 57 games for the Ontario Hockey League (OHL)’s Kingston Frontenacs in his draft year and the ability to throw the body and play with an edge, it looked like the Flames were adding one of their future cornerstone pieces.
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Needless to say, things never really panned out for Bennett with the Flames. He joined the team full-time in 2015-16, a little over a year after he was drafted, and had trouble transitioning his offensive game to the NHL level. He still brought value to the team, bringing grit to their bottom six and finishing in the top five for hits on his team each year. But, with his career high in points with the Flames only eclipsing 36, which was in his rookie year, he wasn’t really living up to the hype of a top-five pick.
In 2020-21, his sixth season with the Flames, Bennett was traded to the Florida Panthers along with a sixth-round pick in exchange for a second-round pick and the rights to prospect Emil Heineman. Albeit a small sample size, the former Frontenac stepped up his offense in a way he never did with the Flames, recording 15 points in ten games for the Panthers along with five points in five playoff games. The Panthers promptly inked him to a four-year extension worth $4.425 million annually that offseason, and he followed that up with 28 goals and 49 points in 71 games in 2021-22.
This season, his offense has taken a little bit of a step back, but he’s still on pace for 49 points, which is well above where his game was with the Flames. He’s currently second on his team in hits with 122, second only to defenseman Radko Gudas, who has 167. He’s also second among forwards on his team in blocked shots with 32, and has the fourth-highest Corsi-for rating (CF%) among Panthers forwards with at least 50 games played at 54.9%.
Bennett Could Fill Multiple Roles For Maple Leafs
The buzz around the Maple Leafs’ trade deadline plans has largely centered around either a top-six forward or a top-four defenseman. The benefit that would come with acquiring Bennett is that he could either fill the role of a top-six forward or a third-line centre. And while an upgrade up the middle hasn’t really been discussed all that much, there are certainly benefits to it and it could be a worthwhile area for general manager Kyle Dubas to explore.
As much as David Kampf has been a model third-line centre for his defensive play and faceoff abilities, you probably want him on the fourth line in the playoffs with the limited offense he brings. Rookie Pontus Holmberg has done a fine job making up for some of that offense with 13 points in 32 games, but he’s struggled more in the dot than anybody else with a 41.6% faceoff rating.
Now, the Maple Leafs could still certainly get away with going into the playoffs with the lineup and centre depth they have. Bennett can play the wing as well as centre, and sticking him on a line with John Tavares and William Nylander or Mitch Marner would give them a consistent option that they can bank on for more offensive production than they would with players like Calle Jarnkrok, Alex Kerfoot, or Pierre Engvall. And, if one of Auston Matthews or Tavares gets hurt (like Matthews is right now), Bennett would be a much better option to slide into the middle in the top six than Kerfoot or Holmberg.
Dubas Likes Term, and Bennett Has Term
When it comes to deadline trades, Dubas has shown a tendency to either trade for players who have term, or for players on expiring contracts and re-sign them. With the exception of players like Nick Foligno and Ilya Lyubushkin, players such as Jack Campbell, Jake Muzzin, and Mark Giordano either had term upon the acquisition or were re-signed to a new deal. It makes sense, given the premium and inflated price players tend to go for at the trade deadline.
Lucky for Dubas, Bennett still has two more years on his contract after this season, with that $4.425 million average annual value (AAV). If the Holland Landing native can continue to produce at the clip he has for the Panthers and average around 50 points per season, acquiring him and his production for that price would be a valuable move for the Maple Leafs.
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Ultimately, the main obstacle will be whether or not the Panthers decide to sell off some pieces, and if they do, how much it would cost. Given the term he has on his deal, I would imagine the Maple Leafs would be comfortable using their first-round pick and perhaps a prospect and a roster player as well. For his offensive instincts, his grit, and his term, I think that price would be well worth it, and even if the Panthers don’t publicly announce that they’re selling, Bennett would be worth a look for Dubas.
Alex Hobson is a writer and a radio producer for 610 CKTB. He has been writing about sports since 2015 and has been with The Hockey Writers since October of 2020. He covers the Toronto Maple Leafs, World Juniors, and the NHL Entry Draft, and is also part of the Sticks in the 6ix Podcast, presented by THW. He also makes weekly appearances on THW’s Maple Leafs Lounge Roundtable. For interview requests or any other inquiries, you can follow Alex’s social media pages listed at the bottom of his articles like this one.